Cut Hamas some slack, to contain Al-Qaeda

Daily News Egypt
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Last week I spoke to a group of former militants in the Khan Younes refugee camp in the southern part of the Gaza Strip. Many assured me that it was only a matter of time before Al-Qaeda arrived in Palestine. The atmosphere in Palestinian areas is charged with anger and frustration, thanks to the political impasse, poor economic conditions, and continued mistrust between Hamas and Fatah. When I asked Hamas leaders in Gaza about the Al-Qaeda scenario, they expressed serious concerns. So long as there were no gains from Hamas’ triumph in the January 2006 election, angry voices within Hamas would continue to rise against the present situation–and “God knows what these angry voices will do or where they will go, the leaders added. Recently, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number-two man in Al-Qaeda, offered an option when he launched an unprecedented attack on Hamas. Zawahiri accused Hamas of capitulating to Israel and selling out on Palestine. In reality, he was appealing to the military ranks of Hamas who have been respecting a self-imposed, if imperfect and shaky, truce with Israel for almost two years now. The formation of Al-Qaeda cells in Gaza could mean the “Iraqization of Palestine –a war of all against all. That is why the formation of the Palestinian national unity government after weeks of difficult negotiations between Hamas and Fatah was a tremendous achievement. At least for the time being, the government prevented the replication of an Iraq-like situation. The government was a political victory Hamas leaders could promote within their own ranks to pacify angry militants, by arguing that the relative sidelining of armed resistance also brought Hamas regional and international legitimacy. As for the other Palestinian groups, they believe that a united Hamas, by entering into a power-sharing arrangement, will become more moderate. A unified and reasonable Hamas is far more preferable to a fragmented one that functions outside the power system. If the West and Israel fail to acknowledge the new government, the fear is that militants will side with Zawahiri in his effort to split Hamas and form Al-Qaeda cells instead. Nationally, the new government can put an end to the infighting between Hamas and Fatah, which has augmented the frustration and despair of Palestinians. But the significance of the government transcends that. It represents a milestone on the path toward creating a Palestinian consensus from which to deal with Israel. Thanks to the Mecca Agreement orchestrated by the Saudis, who put pressure on Hamas and Fatah to agree a common national platform, the coalition government could bridge a destructive gulf within Palestinian political strategy. Over the past 15 years or so, the Palestinians have been divided between two approaches: pursuing Palestinian self-determination and independence through peace talks, as adopted mainly by the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Fatah; or achieving these rights by armed resistance, as adopted by Hamas. Both strategies were directed against Israel, but also worked against each other, yielding very little if anything to the Palestinians. Because there was no unified leadership that could harmonize these contrary efforts, dynamics of “mutual assured destruction dominated when it came to Palestinian interaction. With Hamas’ victory last year, things became even more complicated. Victory led to a cutoff of foreign aid upon which Palestinians depended for their daily survival. There were Israeli incursions into the West Bank and Gaza, stripping Hamas further of its legitimacy as a resistance force. There was a sharp deterioration in an already bad economic situation. And there was the mini-civil war between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza, killing scores of Palestinians and injuring many more. Regional players watched developments closely. The United States, the European Union, Russia, Iran, Israel, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia, each pursuing their own objectives, sought to have a say in Palestinian affairs. This created an over-crowded political scene with a scent of nightmare reminiscent of Iraq. However, the Palestinian unity government can succeed by producing a single Palestinian “address with which all the regional and international players are obliged to talk. The alternative is the creation of an open field that lures external actors in to play Palestinian factions off against each other for their own external goals–in other words, Iraqization. The Iranians support Hamas to enhance their regional leverage; the Saudis want to block such a rise; the Americans are concerned with Iran and its ambitions, as are the Israelis; the Russians are dreaming of and planning for a proactive comeback in the region; and so forth. In the middle of this Al-Qaeda is anxious to get a foot in Palestine and build bridges with radical and angry Palestinians. Since Hamas’ election victory and its formation of government last year, the movement has been using politics more than guns. It has greatly reduced its attacks against Israel, offering an irony that, with Hamas in power, Israeli cities are safer. Israel and the US, instead of exploiting this new situation, have drawn up policies that have made it almost impossible for Hamas to change gradually, without risking disintegration. So far, Al-Qaeda has failed to establish cells in Palestine. Hamas has blocked emerging groups, and Al-Qaeda has found it hard to infiltrate. However, things could change thanks to unwise Israeli and American policies against Hamas. A fragmented movement would only open the door to Al-Qaeda, which in turn would readily harm the interests of Palestinians, Israelis and whoever else is concerned with Palestinian matters. If Israel, the US and the EU delay talking peace with Hamas and the newly formed government, they should prepare themselves to talk war with an Al-Qaeda in Palestine, on bloody terms imposed by the latter. Khaled Hroubis author of “Hamas: Political Thought and Practice (2000) and “Hamas: A Beginner’s Guide (2006). He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

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